PHILADELPHIA (WHTM) — Of course, nobody was calling it the Liberty Bell at the time. If anything, people were calling it the State House bell. (The original State House is now better known as Independence Hall.)
In 1751, the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly had something special to celebrate. Fifty years earlier, William Penn had issued the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, which would be the framework for Pennsylvania governance until 1776.
For years the State House bell (reportedly brought to the colony by Penn himself) hung from a tree behind the building. When a bell tower was being added to the State House in Philadelphia, what better way to celebrate the 50th anniverary of the Charter than getting a bigger, better, and louder new bell for the new tower? (Louder was important — the city was growing, and the sound of the old bell wasn’t reaching some of the new areas.)
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Given Penn’s emphasis in his Charter on rights and freedoms, particularly religious freedom, it’s not surprising the assembly turned to the Bible for an inscription on the bell. Leviticus 25:10 reads:
“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”
The inscription on the bell reads:
Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof Lev. XXV. v X.
By Order of the ASSEMBLY of the Province of PENSYLVANIA for the State House in PhiladA
Pass and Stow
(“Pensylvania” with one “n” was an accepted spelling at the time.)
Isaac Norris, speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, sent orders to Robert Charles, the colony’s London agent, to obtain a “good Bell of about two thousands pound weight.” Charles ordered it from the firm of Lester and Pack, later known as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The cost was £150 13s 8d, or close to £24,000 ($27,890 USD) today.
The bell arrived in Philadelphia on Sept. 1, 1752. It was put on a stand for testing, and with the first stroke of the clapper, it cracked. Either the casting was flawed or the metal was brittle.
Two local founders, John Pass and John Stow, took on the task of recasting the bell. They broke the bell into small pieces, melted it down, and, working on the assumption there was a problem with the metal, added copper to the mix.
The new new bell was tested in March of 1753. The good news — it didn’t crack. The bad news — the tone was…underwhelming. One listener compared it to two coal shuttles being banged together.
So it was back to the foundry for Pass and Stow. The new new new bell was tested in June of 1753. This time the bell’s tone passed muster, and it was hung in the State House steeple later that month.
The bell would be rung on many occasions — so many, in fact, that people living near the State House complained to the Assembly about the noise.
One time it did NOT ring was on July 4, 1776. The Continental Congress approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence that day, but it wouldn’t officially be announced until July 8. On that day, bells rang throughout the city; presumably the State House bell was one of them.
By 1777, the Revolutionary War was being fought in Pennsylvania. After Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine on Sept. 11, the citizens of Philadelphia, fearing the city’s bells would be melted down by the British to make munitions, sent them into hiding. The State House bell spent nine months hidden in the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown. The State House steeple was in bad shape and needed to be rebuilt, so the bell was not rehung until 1785.
It continued in use into the 1800s. Oddly enough, nobody seems to be sure when the big crack happened. Some say it happened during Lafayette’s return to the United States in 1824, others that it was while tolling on the 1835 death of Chief Justice John Marshall, or while celebrating Washington’s birthday in 1846. (It’s also possible it cracked more than once, getting progressively worse.) Certainly by 1846, it was pretty much unusable.
So how did the State House bell become the Liberty Bell? Well, that happened in the 1830s, when the bell was adopted as a symbol of the abolitionist movement. They were the first to refer to it as the Liberty Bell, and the name stuck, especially after William Lloyd Garrison reprinted a poem from a Boston abolitionist pamphlet in his anti-slavery paper The Liberator. The poem, entitled “The Liberty Bell,” pointed out that despite its inscription, the bell did not proclaim liberty to all inhabitants — at least, not yet.
And it’s been the Liberty Bell ever since, reminding us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.